In 2004, in the days before streaming, the arrival of The L Word, a drama all about lesbians, was such an enormous event that a global black market in DVD copies sprang up around it. It is hard to imagine any other television show that has inspired such dedication, if not quite devotion. Women, particularly queer women, came together to watch it, shared discs both legal and otherwise, and developed a complicated, love-hate relationship to its shiny saga of wealthy West Hollywood lesbian life. The show has been passed on and passed down over the years, as new generations have discovered it in their own ways. Partly, its longevity, despite its flaws, stands as a testament to the heady brew the show concocted, but at the same time it stands as an indictment of the fact that nothing has really taken its place since.
It might seem odd to make that claim, given that there are more queer characters on screen than ever before, and more of those are women. The “dead lesbian” trope, in which a queer woman would be introduced then killed off, seems to be dying its own death, at last. I often joke that if there isn’t a queer character in a Netflix show, you wonder if you’ve accidentally skipped an episode. The most recent Glaad Where We Are On TV findings report that 10.2% of primetime regulars are LGBTQ, the highest percentage in its 15-year history of reporting. But often, these characters are part of a bigger story. There is still a sense that as queer viewers, you take all the queerness you can get, even if it’s the B story, which most likely it is.
In the 10 years since The L Word ended, in a gloomy cloud of terrible writing and bizarre plot twists – justice for Jenny – the internet’s intolerance for mistakes has become ferocious. There was a lot to question, first time around: biphobia and then erasure, unforgivable ethnic stereotyping, and, most famously, its tone-deaf trans storyline. Some also objected to its privilege, wealth and glossy sheen. Personally, I found that flashy, entertaining, camp over-the-top-ness to be one of its main strengths. There are plenty of miserable LGBTQ stories to be found in TV and film history. For the first time, lesbians were fun. It was never more L Word than when they decided to write an entire season about a movie adaptation of a fictional literary version of the characters in the series. It may have tripped up along the way, but it always had gumption.
So, too, does The L Word: Generation Q, which opens with an explicit sex scene, though, to re-establish the boundary-pushing credentials that it once had, it adds an accent, a talking point, of this being period sex. I quite liked the cheekiness of it. Here we go again, I thought. Even though the showrunner has changed – it is now Marja-Lewis Ryan, with original creator Ilene Chaiken as executive producer – and it has learned many lessons from its first time out, it remains recognisably itself, and there is nothing quite like it.
Three of the original characters are back, and the absence of the others deftly dealt with. Bette is now running for mayor of Los Angeles, on a platform of social justice, with a particular interest in fixing the opioid crisis. The reasons are left unspecified, in the three episodes released to critics at least, but it’s possible to hazard a guess as to why it matters to her. “While I know I’m not the perfect messenger, I do have the perfect message,” she declares, after her campaign is nearly derailed by a sex scandal. Frankly, in these times of uninspiring political choices, it is almost cruel to dangle Bette Porter (or “Bette fucking Porter”, as Shane has it) in front of us as a model of what might be. Alice, who was a podcasting pioneer, is now the host of her own talk show on TV, “a fun, feminist [show] where you can drink coffee and wine”, where her dream guest is Roxane Gay and the logo is yonic. She is also the new, reluctant stepmother to two small children. And Shane is still Shane, now absurdly, obscenely rich, stepping off a private jet like a rock star, having enjoyed the services of the stewardess very much indeed.
The action has shifted from West Hollywood to Silver Lake, where the new generation are flourishing. Sophie and Dani are the Bette and Tina of 2019, about to get engaged, while their roommate Micah, a trans man, navigates the dating scene, with a special interest in his hot new neighbour. Finley, “a traditional lesbian, when it comes to tools”, completes the quartet with rogueish swagger. They have good chemistry, solid stories, and lots of sex, and you get the sense that they are only cartoonish when they are intended to be so. Somehow, this combination of older concerns – divorce, parenting – with 20-something strife about dating, housing and family, gives it room to breathe.
The L Word: Generation Q had a lot to do. It had to ensure it did not repeat the missteps of the original, while maintaining its spirit; it had to stand out in an age where gay storylines are not quite so scarce; and it had to be better than its “graphic novel spinoff”-esque new title suggested it might be. It is all done of those things, with flair. It felt more joyful to have it back than I could possibly have imagined. It is popcorn fun, highly entertaining, rarely taking itself too seriously. I think the key to any renewed success will be that it has not lost its exuberant edge. I told a friend about the private jet scene. “It’s our Dynasty,” she said, solemnly.